Entrepreneurship, confidence and wobbles…

or: How to dance with your Inner Critic

I’ve been reflecting on themes that come up time and time again in the one-to-one coaching conversations that I have had over the last 12 months or so with business leaders and entrepreneurs. The theme that stands out head and shoulders above the rest is that of self-doubt, of individuals second-guessing their own judgement and capability.

Photo: Dr. Jo North

It’s really understandable. Growing a business isn’t easy. It involves trying new things and learning on the go – uncertainty and risk come with the territory, and some failure is inevitable. Recruiting the right people can be challenging. And people being people, employees don’t always perform in the shiny, fantastic way that may have been promised at interview. I know that many business owners also want to be great bosses, so when it doesn’t work out with an employee, they will do some soul searching to consider what they themselves could have done differently to make it work. Plus, taking all the decisions solo and being completely accountable for the success and wellbeing of your business is a big responsibility to carry.

Of course, for most of us these challenges are a huge part of why we do what we do. As well as the comparative freedom to shape our own roles and future by creating something of value and meaning from our own ideas, passion and hard work. When things go well, I know that many of us feel fulfilled, energised, motivated, proud, fortunate, unstoppable and empowered.

What I have noticed is that so many entrepreneurs – including (and almost especially!) really capable and successful people – have times when they are grappling with low self-belief and confidence in what they are doing. It’s rarely visible to the naked eye, and only surfaces in safe spaces such as our one-to-one coaching conversations.

Outwardly super confident people don’t always actually feel so self-assured inside sometimes, of course. Most of us have wobbles, and then we bring ourselves round. For a surprising number of people, though, the self-doubt doesn’t seem to completely subside for a while sometimes, and it can hold them back from making some of the bolder decisions that could really propel themselves, and their business, forward.

The inner critic has taken over!


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Understanding your inner critic

The inner critic is that voice inside your head that creates uncertainty and doubt. Click To Tweet

It points out risk and highlights potential weaknesses. Often it can sound like an inner parent who wants you to be careful, even criticising and judging you sometimes. Typical, healthy humans all have an inner critic!

Some people try to tackle their inner critic by ignoring it or pushing it away. This may seem like the logical move. However, the best way approach is to learn to dance with your inner critic, i.e. work with it. Squashing it may help in that moment but there is nothing productive about this – it just creates more tension for you.

Here are some insights and tips to help you to discover more about your inner critic, including how to work with it rather than against it to get the results you want.

Photo: Inner critic article mind map

Why do we all have an inner critic?

An inner critic is something that we all have, but we have not always had one! I’ll explain …

Scientists don’t really know at what age we start to hear our inner voice. It’s logical to assume that we don’t have one until we start to learn language ourselves, which is usually around the age of 12-18 months. It’s thought that our inner critic starts to develop when we begin to hear the word ‘no’. As small children we rely on the adults around us to take care of us and we hear the disappointment, worry, or anger in our parents’ voices as we are about to do something that we shouldn’t, or when we are heading for danger. This continues to build as we grow because we are exposed to it for longer.

The thing to remember is that the purpose of your inner critic is simply to protect you. Think of it as having really good intentions, because its role is to be on constant alert to preserve your wellbeing and keep you from danger and risky situations. It’s trying to do a good thing for you!

We all know that the people in meetings who talk the most or the loudest, or who have the strongest opinions, don’t always contribute the most value to discussions, and aren’t always right. It’s the same with your inner critic. Because your inner voice is strong, loud and frequent, it doesn’t automatically follow that what it has to say is accurate or well-informed!

As I’ve said, our natural reaction is typically to try and squash our inner critic. However, because it’s strongly motivated to keep us safe, it will just keep popping back up. Instead, we can help ourselves by learning to learn to work with our inner critic in a healthy way.


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When does your inner critic appear?

If you are going to be able to work with your inner critic effectively, you are going to need to know when it appears so that you can be ready for it. This is something that is very much personal to you. Your inner critic may be different to mine. Some people have a specific voice from the past as their inner critic, for example, this could be an old boss, or a family member. Others do not have a specific voice to go with their inner critic.  

There are different triggers that can bring your inner critic to light. For example, some people will hear this voice when they have made a mistake. Others will hear it before a project has even begun, planting those seeds of doubt. It’s all about figuring out when and why your own inner critic appears. Everyone is different. Tune in and notice it. Practising some of the tips I shared in my article on mindfulness, creativity and entrepreneurship here will help with this.

Photo: Live Video expert and coach Ian Anderson-Gray at Build Your Audience Live, 2019. Ian is a big advocate that the imperfections inherent in live video broadcasts are a big part of what makes them great, authentic marketing tools

Self-limiting beliefs and self-imposed constraints – is everything we’re taught and that we’re brought up to believe really true?

Limiting beliefs are those that constrain us in a certain way. This means that simply by believing them, we prevent ourselves from to saying or doing things, or acting in a certain way, and this limits us.

I did a really interesting exercise a few weeks ago that was inspired by Will Storr’s book, The Science of Storytelling: Whys Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better. Storr explains the reasons why we become engaged and connected with well-crafted characters in fiction and movies. My summary is that the central character as a core belief, or set of beliefs, that for them represents the ‘truth’. Living in a way that upholds those beliefs through decisions and actions helps the character to achieve success, but because the evidence behind the truth of these beliefs isn’t questioned, they also create the fatal flaw within the character.

As a creative, I like to look at things in a different way. So, I asked myself these questions based on Will Storr’s work on storytelling:

  • What if I were a well-crafted character in a story?
  • What are the fundamental beliefs I have that I have never really questioned?
  • How have they helped me to succeed?
  • How do they make me flawed?

And I will be dead honest with you. Here’s what I discovered just a few weeks away from turning 50!

The fundamental beliefs that I have never questioned are:

  • Being fat is bad (I have been significantly overweight for most of my life since the age of 8).
  • Other people don’t like fat people as much as they like slim people.
  • It is difficult for me to lose weight. (This is true to a large extent due to various things have been medically tested, which I won’t go into detail about here. But if I were to be a contestant on The Island with Bear Grylls I would be prepared to bet that I would lose a good amount of weight!).
  • Working hard and achieving academic and career excellence is very good (possibly over-compensation for being overweight).
  • Working hard and achieving excellence gains approval and support from the people who matter in my life.

These beliefs helped me to succeed because I have been a high achiever academically, I love work and am proud of my career and in the main have absolutely loved the experience of getting to where I am today. I’m also looking forward to the business journey ahead.

They made me flawed because there are long periods in my life when I have overworked at the expense of my health (and weight) because of the high value I place on working hard and achieving excellence. There are times when I try less hard to lose weight because I perceive it as being such a difficult process for me personally, given my individual circumstances. There are opportunities I haven’t put myself forward for in the past (much less so in recent years) because I felt inhibited by my weight. In retrospect I doubt my weight would have made much difference either way to the outcome of any of them!

Our inner critic is often building on, and reinforcing, those fundamental beliefs that we have that we just take for granted. We don’t actually stop and ask ourselves to produce the evidence for their truth because we have heard them so much.

Does this sound familiar?

It is all about changing your mindset. A lot of people end up restricting themselves because of self-limiting beliefs and self-imposed constraints. How about you? Here are some clues that some of the thoughts you experience might be self-limiting beliefs…

  • I am/am not
  • I must/must not
  • I can’t
  • I do/don’t

Be aware of them. Question them. Don’t just accept them.

For me, I am taking a more balanced approach to work, and am more attentive and positive about weight loss and exercise as a result.

Idea Time activity:

Take a few minutes now to ask yourself these questions, and write down your answers so that you can reflect on them:

  • What if I were a well-crafted character in a story?
  • What are the fundamental beliefs I have that I have never really questioned?
  • How have they helped me to succeed?
  • How do they make me flawed?


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Perfection is the enemy of good – and of progress!

‘Perfection is the enemy of good’ is an aphorism that is often linked to Voltaire.

I am also a fan of Winston Churchill’s version of the saying, i.e. ‘Perfection is the enemy of progress’ – and it most certainly is.

Perfection can stop us from achieving our goals in an efficient, enjoyable and healthy way. When we are seeking perfection, we are trying to achieve something that is not even attainable. Perfectionism isn’t a strength, it’s a weakness. Studies show that perfectionism can actually make us unwell, contributing to anxiety, depression, poor sleep, low self-esteem, eating disorders and having a negative impact on our resilience.  

Comparing who we are and how well we’re doing against a benchmark of perfection gives power and ammunition to our inner critic. Click To TweetInstead of seeking to achieve perfection, seek to achieve excellence instead. It’s both realistic and better for us all round. Click To Tweet

Read more about how to build your resilience as an entrepreneurial leader here.

Celebrating imperfection – ‘wabi-sabi’

No, wabi-sabi is not a type of Japanese food! It’s a form of Japanese philosophy. It is all about living a perfectly imperfect life. It is a concept that can be applied to all of the moments we experience throughout our day.

‘Wabi’ is defined as ‘understated elegance’ or ‘rustic simplicity’, with a focus on the less-is-more mindset.

‘Sabi’ is translated as ‘taking pleasure in the imperfect.’

I think that this is an amazing concept, especially when it comes to dealing with our inner critic. For instance, if a clay bowl is broken, Japanese people who uphold this philosophy would repair the bowl and turn the flaw into a special feature of beauty. We can learn to do the same with the parts of ourselves that we know are less than perfect.

The role of self-confidence in dancing with our inner critic

Self-confidence plays a key role in dancing with our inner critic, and I have written in more detail about it in this article, How to become more self-confident.

It is all about understanding our own personal skill set and abilities and judging how well equipped we are to handle a specific task or whether we need any other type of help or assistance along the way. Having this ability to judge our capabilities fairly and honesty is the key to knowing when your inner critic is being an irrational voice that is trying to hold you back, and when you it’s providing useful feedback that you would benefit from taking on board.

Some people find that the ‘tone voice’ their inner critic uses helps them to differentiate between an irrational fear and a piece of sound insight. When your inner critic is coming from a fearful place, the tone of voice might be whiny and complaining, or overly authoritarian and controlling. On the other hand, when your inner critic uses a calmer, clearer and more considered tone of voice, it might indicate that it’s coming from a more balanced and genuinely informative place.

When your inner critic uses a calmer, clearer and more considered tone of voice, it might indicate that it’s coming from a more balanced and genuinely informative place. Click To Tweet

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‘Negativity bias’ and how to overcome it

Being aware of negativity bias, and understanding how to manage it, can really help us to learn to dance with our inner critic.

So, what is negativity bias?

Well, have you ever found yourself receiving praise for a specific piece of work you have completed, yet instead of focusing on the praise, you concentrate on the one or two tiny negatives? If this sounds familiar, then you know exactly what negativity bias is because you have experienced. It is all about the way that we deal with positives and negatives.

Negativity bias is a term that is used to describe the asymmetrical way we tend to perceive both the positive and the negative, such as when we dwell on the one bad thing that we did rather than looking at all of the good things we achieved.

Some researchers assert that negative emotions have an impact close to 3x stronger than positive emotions. Click To Tweet

Events we perceive to be bad have a stronger impact on us than events we perceive to be good.

Catching ourselves when we are overly focusing on the negative is important for general balance in decision-making, as well as mental health and self-confidence. In order to overcome negativity bias, you need to start by looking at the positive aspects of every experience, at least as much as if not more than the negative ones. Take active, mindful measures to notice the good in yourself and your work. And if you still find yourself ruminating, which means going over and over past events in your mind, try the “Notice, Shift, Rewire” technique. I take you through it step-by-step in this article on Mindfulness, Creativity and Entrepreneurship.

So, what next?

I hope that you have found this blog post useful and that it’s given you some fresh insight and tips that you can use to dance with your inner critic. Mastering these tools and techniques can be truly liberating if you know that your self-doubt is holding you back.

If you would like more resources and some one-to-one confidential, individually tailored coaching, consultancy and resources to help you grow your entrepreneurial self-confidence, do get in touch at jo@ideatime.co.uk, and also check out my Idea Time Membership.

You’re not the only one who feels that way, sometimes, I promise. And I can help.

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